Policing the Information Highway

Article excerpt

The Clinton administration wants to be sure everyone will have access to the information superhighway. The states want to have some say in its regulation.

Vice President Gore and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown traveled around the country this past winter to help promote private investment in advanced telecommunications and to ensure that all levels of society can use the resulting "information highway." One of the Clinton administration's most ambitious goals is to make sure that all the classrooms, libraries, hospitals and clinics in the country are connected by the year 2000.

Here's what the Clinton administration promises:

* People can live almost anywhere they want without foregoing opportunities for useful and fulfilling employment telecommuting to their offices through an electronic highway.

* The best schools, teachers and courses will be available to all students, without regard to geography, distance, resources or disability.

* Services that improve America's health-care system and respond to other important societal needs could be available on-line, without waiting in line, when and where you need them.

* Individual government agencies, businesses and other entities can exchange information electronically--reducing paperwork and improving service.

Practically every major periodical during the past 12 months has carried a cover story about "riding the information highway" and the many economic and societal benefits that road promises. What the glossy magazines fail to mention is that while many states--including California, Kansas, North Carolina, New York and Wisconsin--have been at the forefront of promoting competition in local telecommunications markets and developing modern, reliable and low-cost state information infrastructures, much of that progress is being ignored by the federal government.

Pre-empting States' Authority

Pending federal legislation would shift what historically has been under state authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In writing the rules for competition on the information superhighway, the federal government may end up barring states as equal partners.

State legislators have already expanded the number of ways information technology can be used to cut costs and improve the efficiency of government. States are using:

* Electronic benefits transfer for food stamps and other assistance programs.

* Stronger law enforcement and public safety through multimedia networks to facilitate arraignments, parole activities and the transfer of criminal data.

* Citizens access to government services through electronic kiosks such as "Info/California" that provide citizens a "single face to government" through touch-screen computers in grocery stores and shopping malls.

Since federal, state and local governments act as both regulators and major users of telecommunications services, government has a vested interest in the development of the national information infrastructure (NII). The Clinton administration's vision for the NII contains nine goals, including promoting private investment, extending the concept of "universal service" to ensure that information resources are available to all individuals at affordable rates, and coordinating with state and local governments.

Keep an Eye on Congress

Since September, the goal of "coordinating with state and local governments" seems to have turned into a movement to "pre-empt the jurisdiction of state and local governments." State legislators need to keep an eye on four proposals being advanced by the administration and Congress that could drastically alter the current legal and regulatory structure of the communications industry--at the expense of state authority.

In January, the administration proposed its "Communications Act Reforms" to promote local competition, encourage investment in the NII, preserve universal service, and adopt a new regulatory framework for advanced communications and information services. …